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Rob Hughes
Saturday, Jul 5, 2014

Sports

Forget Suarez, hail the new King James

The Straits Times | Rob Hughes | Saturday, Jul 5, 2014

Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2014 World Cup Group C soccer match between Japan and Colombia at the Pantanal arena.

We have a straight choice at this World Cup.

But why are the Internet, Twitter and the blogosphere bulging with hits on Luis Suarez, when they could so easily be consumed by James, Messi or Neymar?

The choice is beast or beauty. Self-destruction or artistry.

I am aware that there is a name up there that might momentarily throw off one or two readers.

James (pronounced Hahm-ez) is Rodriguez, the No. 10 of Colombia who right now is leading and not living in the shadow of either Lionel Messi or Neymar Jr.

That in itself deserves to be the story of this World Cup. This is about a 22-year-old Colombian stepping onto the platform of the two Barcelona stars, who are expected to lead their countries to victory on July 13.

Now, what is wrong with us, with the world media and the curiosity of the masses, that we confuse what they are doing with what Suarez has despicably done to the game?

Shame on us that we follow a man who bites - three times on three different football fields - and then tries to lie his way out of it.

Shame on the President of Uruguay who calls the Fifa ban on his country's idol as the act of fascists. (With expletives deleted for the purposes of this newspaper.)

Shame on the thousands who lined Montevideo for the homecoming of the idol Suarez. And some of those who, led by Diego Maradona on his TV show, accuse everyone bar Suarez of being out of step with the times.

Suarez is a brat? So what if he is genius too.

Sorry, I just don't buy it. Many of us have seen the wonderful performances he sustained over the past 10 months for Liverpool.

Fans, writers, players and officials all voted for him to be the top of every poll among the multitude of world players in the English Premier League.

We bowed to his "redemption" because he started the season behind the rest after serving out his ban for the previous season's bite into the arm of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic.

Let's go no further into the Suarez crime sheet, other than to note that his abrupt change of mind and the apology this week after four days of denial have an ulterior motive.

He wants to dump his Liverpool contract and move to Barcelona. His wife's parents live there and, heavens above, what an attack Barca might possess if they have Messi, Neymar and Suarez next season.

To make that happen, the Catalan club might have to find €100 million (S$170.5 million) to pay Liverpool. And to fund such a sum, Barcelona need their big sponsors on board - sponsors who just might hesitate before attaching their product endorsement to a serial biter.

So Luis is now sorry. Uruguay's head of state, and so many people who gave him a hero's homecoming, now have to accept that he actually did the dirty deed. He wasn't framed by the Italians or victimised by the media. Enough about him (for now).

We are glued to this high-scoring, high-drama World Cup in the land of Pele, the greatest living player, and the greatest No. 10 there ever was.

Neymar and Messi wear his number because they aspire to be his equal in terms of winning at least once what he won three times - the World Cups of 1958, 1962 and 1970.

They are running neck and neck at this event.

But the Colombian, Rodriguez, is actually out-running them.

So far, he has scored five goals in four games, Neymar, Messi and Germany's Thomas Mueller have hit the target four times.

Rodriguez, however, has also created goals for others, finished off great team play and, for my money, scored the most spectacular goal of this World Cup.

He seems, like Pele, like Messi, to possess almost a sixth sense of time and motion.

The goal that knocked Uruguay out last Saturday was heavenly.

With his back to goal, 25 yards out, he controlled a headed pass high on his chest. A fraction of a second before he felt that touch, he glanced over his shoulder, assessing that two defenders were close but not as they say in football "skin tight" to him.

Without another look, he let the ball roll off his chest like rain off a leaf. And then, the movement still seamless, he turned full circle and volleyed, never allowing the ball to touch the ground.

The shot sailed over the goalkeeper, touched the underside of the crossbar and bounced down behind the goal-line.

It all took less than a second to accomplish, and it led Uruguay's coach Oscar Tabarez to say: "Talents are those who do things which have nothing to do with their life experience - Maradona, Messi, Suarez. They do things because they have certain gifts that make him special.

"From what I've seen, he's the best player in the World Cup. I don't think I'm exaggerating."

Thank goodness, Tabarez avoided saying that if only his best player, Suarez, was allowed to compete, it might have been a fairer contest. The fact is, Rodriguez is the better man and the better image for this sport.

He wears the No. 10 for good reason. He is an artist in football boots. He is a fresh talent and a joy to behold as he leads the Colombians to do a merry hip dance after each of his goals.

Why have we missed him on the rise? The money men who controlled his career, third-party ownership that moves around talented players, especially South Americans, placed him in Banfield in Argentina when he was 17, to Porto for €5 million two years later and last summer to the Russian-backed French Ligue 1 club, Monaco, for €45 million.

In Monaco, he was the playmaker to another Colombian, Radamel Falcao, who would have been the main striker at this World Cup but for a serious knee injury.

Out of Falcao's shadow, scoring his goals but still assisting, stepped James R.

So far, we have been smitten, but nobody has been bitten, by the new addition to the No. 10 legend.


This article was first published on JUNE 3, 2014.
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